It was after 10 p.m. when Sabra Faulk finally called. She had just finished rehearsing for her gig this Saturday at the Abounding Grace Sanctuary, an eastside church built as an octagon with near-perfect acoustics.
It's late, because Faulk, like so many of her musical contemporaries, has a day job. And as difficult as that is to accept, paying the bills must always take precedence. (No one rehearses before work.) Fortunately, it's a price she's willing to pay.
As a songwriter, singer and bass player, her gifts are many.
Although Faulk can be seen playing with any number of different musicians and configurations—the Cochise County All-Stars, Mitzi Cowell, Bunny Kirby and Heather Hardy (with and without her Lil' Mama Blues Band), to name a few—she usually plays at smaller, out-of-the-way places like Café Tremolo, the Glass Onion Café, the Oracle Inn and the Mint. Saturday's show will be her first fronting her own band since a show on Mount Lemmon 17 months ago.
"I needed to take some time off to support my mom, who was going through cancer," Faulk explained, assuring me that her mom is now "doing great," and with that, she seems ready to jumpstart a career that's been nearly a lifetime in the making.
"My mom was a singer, and my dad played rhythm guitar when we lived on the Navajo Reservation in Kayenta (Arizona)," she said. "My first memories were when I was 4 or 5 and falling asleep at their rehearsals."
The family eventually moved to Willcox, and while her mom stopped playing, Faulk was just beginning, learning to play guitar at 8 and eventually turning pro at 18. "I used to drive up to Safford, playing bass in a four-piece country band at a VFW every weekend," she fondly recalled.
She made the move to Tucson in the early 1980s, where it was slow-going at first. "I was a greenhorn, and it took me a while to break into the scene." She got her first break sitting in at the Last Roundup, Tucson's legendary honky-tonk out on Benson Highway. At some point, she began playing with Gary Rust.
"That was a big deal at the time, and I learned a lot about a lot back then in '85," she said. That's when Rust and co. became the house band at the Maverick, another iconic country bar.
Faulk began to establish herself as a go-to bass player. She started to branch out into blues and funk, making her available to more makeshift bands and more work opportunities. "My whole goal was just about making a living and not making records," she said.
It was not uncommon for her to be working several nights a week, between the casinos, Sakura, the Maverick and a variety of other clubs. While she loved the variety of musicians and styles, and being a self-described "cover-tune hack," it was only a matter of time before she began finding her own true voice.
"I was a late bloomer when it came to songwriting," she said. "I wrote (songs) when I was playing in cover bands, but they didn't really gel until I started seriously writing about 10 years ago."
Those efforts resulted in a batch of tunes that—borrowing from her experiences playing country, funk and blues—was refreshingly original. Produced and backed by Namoli Brennet, she recorded 28 Churches, 5 Bars; the title cut is an homage to Willcox, part tongue-in-cheek, part not. These songs are groove-oriented and hook-laden, and pack a serious lyrical and emotional punch.
As the economy took its toll, and as Faulk developed more of a taste for her own material, she stopped working as much musically—hence the day job.
"Clubs stopped having house bands and live music five or six nights a week," she said.
Working days also took a toll on her songwriting. When she laments, "The muse is tired at the end of the day," you can hear it in her voice. "Fortunately, ideas find me, and when it hits me, it just flows out. I'm not one of these people who take a lot of time to work on writing a song," she said.
Her comments on the songwriting process also provide insight into her newest work. "Sometimes, major incidents (in life) can send you into a block or a writing frenzy," she said. "The stuff that's been tragic or difficult is the stuff I should be writing about, but am not. But trauma changes you, and so now I'm writing about recovering from that."
She's begun work on a new crop of songs, laying down tracks at Duncan Stitt's A Writer's Room studio. "I'm still not sure if it's going to be an acoustic album or a full-blown production. All my musician friends say they are happy to contribute, so we'll see. Mostly, I have such gratitude and appreciation for all my musician friends who I get to play with," she said.
When Faulk takes the stage this weekend, she'll be joined by her Cochise County All-Star bandmates Louie Levinson on pedal-steel and nylon-string guitars, Gene Holmes on electric guitar, Bunny Kirby on acoustic guitar and vocals, and Ralph Gilmore on drums. Deanna Sylvester will also play some bass, allowing Faulk to play occasional acoustic guitar.